How austerity sparked a digital transformation with impressive results

Add bookmark

Chanice Henry

At Oracle OpenWorld Europe we heard from Customer Access Manager Toni Kershaw about how austerity in the UK sparked a digital transformation at Calderdale Council which led to impressive business improvements.

We were also joined by a member of CX Network's advisory board. Emmanuel Obadia, VP Marketing, EMEA Applications at Oracle.

Digital transformation 

Chanice: Could you provide an overview of your panel session here at Oracle OpenWorld Europe?

Toni: “Today I was talking about public sector to citizen engagement and I gave a potted history of where Calderdale Council was a few years ago in terms of having antiquated technology.  Mostly, if not all of it, was on premise, loads of different legacy systems, tied up in all sorts of contracts.

“When austerity happened we tried to react positively and look at it as an opportunity to transform.

“We started on our a digital transformation journey with customer services teams leading the way, looking at the front door of how customers access the Council, the different access channels, what was innovative, what was working, what wasn’t and what did our customers actually want.

Chanice: What was the quickest win for you?

Toni: “Chat: that was the quickest win for us in terms of transforming how customers interacted with us.  As soon as we got the green light it was really quick to implement–  we started our pilot within eight weeks with Connect Assist and Oracle – which was absolutely fantastic because these things take time to get the green light and then you don’t want to have to wait another ten months for planning.  

“We implemented it rather quickly but we also did it fairly quietly.  We’d heard a few horror stories about how chat functions can fail, because of teams not being prepared for the contact volumes and we definitely didn’t want to start with customers receiving a busy message.

 “We were one of the first authorities in the country to do 24/7 Chat, so it’s available to customers at all times of the day and night, and it has been received really well.  Customers are really surprised to hear that we’ve got these innovative solutions.  Still to this day there are very few authorities that provide 24/7 Chat. 

“Proactive Chat has been a brilliant tool for us, it allows us to say to customers: ‘You seem to have been on this page for a long time, are you struggling with anything?’ and assist them before they leave the page and we lose them. 

“The Virtual Assistant seems to be the next logical step for us to take chat to the next level. We are currently implementing that and looking to push the pilot live in the next few weeks. 

“Five years ago when we started thinking about a chat function, there was some scepticism about it’s place in a local authority. But we truly believed that it would transform the customer’s experience of interacting with the Council.  From launching chat within the first two months we got about 150 pieces of feedback from customers about our website.

Emmanuel: Without that chat function you would have never received that feedback.

Toni: “Never – without the chat function we would have never seen it.  So, it was brilliant because we got real-time feedback, we were able to act on it straight away and then say to the customer we’ve fixed that link for you and in most cases they were quite impressed and grateful. That sort of feedback is invaluable to us. 

“We make the advisers responsible for their own feedback too, so they know if customers rate them at a zero and will want to know the reasons why.  When you look a little deeper sometimes the reason is out of the adviser’s control, for example the council didn’t fill a pothole in time. But around 85% of our customers who use chat are extremely satisfied.”

Chanice: It is very impressive to hear so early on in this transformation you were able to action feedback and close the loop. Some companies I speak to struggle to even get the feedback distributed to the correct departments!

Toni: “We used a monitored inbox right from the start so it’s nothing complicated. Fortunately for us I also manage the web team so I was able to ensure somebody took the responsibility to check that inbox twice a day. 

“On launch it was practically a full-time job because we had a large influx of tickets.  Now we only get one or two a week. 

“In some cases, for example where customers feel that the organisation of the web pages isn’t logical and complicates their navigation, we have to discuss internally whether it’s because that customer that doesn’t understand the journey, or it’s because they have spotted something we have missed. If it’s the latter even if it takes four weeks to fix we will go back to the customer and say: ‘We’ve solved this for you.’

“Previously customers might have called in and given their feedback to an adviser, might have written it down but then got side-tracked with another call and the information may not have managed to reach the right people to make the change happen. 

“Within the first year of implementing the tool our website Improved it’s Socitm rating. I think that’s largely due to us acting on the customer feedback and using their fresh perspectives.”

See also: 5 Steps to improve customer service by making it personal

Emmanuel: So you mentioned business case when considering chat tools. In your case what was the main driver for this digital transformation?

Toni: “My business case was focused on the potential financial savings in terms of getting people online and building trust and confidence in our website with customers.

“Customers expect to be able to interact with organisations online without too much friction. If they are online on a Saturday morning and struggling to fill in a form the last thing they want is to be forced to wait until Monday to call us.  With chat they can speak to an agent right then and get support. 

“We try to look at things like chat as not an additional channel but something that supports our digital ambition and our channel shift strategies. 

“To me it’s just a no-brainer, why wouldn’t we do use chat, but obviously for stakeholders you’ve got to shape your business case.  I was very wary of presenting figures as in cashflow savings because chat really needs to form part of our wider channels strategy. The numbers speak for themselves: in 2016/17 I think 30% of our customers were accessing service online rather than traditional costly channels – now it’s 57%, so that’s a huge jump.

“We follow the ethos of ‘digital by choice’. We don’t want to force customers down a certain route but we do inform customers of the benefits our digital routes have.  Our ‘Get Online’ campaigns often focus on how customers will receive a much faster response contacting us digitally than through traditional channels.

“But the choice is in their hands and that’s why every channel needs to be as amazing as it can be so they are not getting a two-tier service, they’re getting consistency.”

Emmanuel: They can select the channel of their choice, at the point in time they want it.

Toni: “Yes. And it is really important that customers continue to have the choice. There are so many variables depending on the complexity and nature of the query that digital isn’t always the most appropriate solution. But customer needs are changing all the time and it is critical that we can respond to this.”

When assessing experimental projects, many professionals go by the phrase: ‘If you are going to fail, fail fast and fail intelligently’. How do you select which projects to pursue and which ones to abandon?

Toni: “You’ve always got to start with the outcomes you want in mind and what’s going to give you the ‘biggest bang for your buck’.

“Early on in our transformation we saw other authorities quickly pushing new tools online and claiming they had managed to ‘digitise’ their organisation. From the customer’s view it looked like that authority was embarking on their digital journey. When in actual fact it was a pdf form or a word document that was passed through to the back office who then needed to rekey information.

“We know there was a big difference between being electronic and being digital so took a much different approach. We made sure that everything was integrated right from the outset. Yes it took us longer, but when we finished, these integrated forms went from the customer straight through to the back-office with a transformed process within that. As a result we made significant savings within 18 months. 

“I know some local authorities are still manually keying in information that comes from customers which saddens me but doesn’t surprise me as I know how complex some of the integrations can be. The customer won’t know they are doing that, but it’s an incredibly inefficient workflow.

“So, we were quite ahead of the game I feel, which gave us the space to try some things that didn’t work out. 

“One thing we did try was a single sign-on solution, but because we’ve still got legacy systems that don’t have APIs or open standards it was just such a hard nut to crack. We asked ourselves is this sign on issue really painful for customers? We decided it is probably wasn’t as painful as some of the other issues they are experiencing and have shelved the single sign-on issue for the time being and as its on the government’s agenda to create a standardised solution.”

Chanice: To wrap up, what are the benefits you and your team are enjoying thanks to Calderdale Council's digital transformation so far

Toni: “There are far too many benefits to mention. They key ones for me are there are some definite efficiencies. Some of our advisers can do up to five chats at any one time.

“We’ve got a very low staff turnover because our staff feel empowered and are really proud of what we do and the service that they deliver.  There is so much more variety in their role now - they are on a rota for digital which is responding to our social media contact, managing chat and, assisting with some of the projects we’re working on

“Our advisers weren’t convinced at the start that offering digital solutions went hand in hand with delivering excellent customer service. They have come to see that if customers want to self-serve or go online with their queries, it leaves them available to assist those that have more challenging needs.

“Through better use of technology we have built trust and engagement with customers evidenced not only through our channel shift statistics but through the feedback we receive.

“And finally, digital solutions can help us transact with customers who are harder to reach and might not have feel comfortable contacting us through traditional channels. This is at the forefront of our efforts to reduce inequality in our borough.”

Sponsored By: